Angel on Death Row

Newspaper Accounts

Killer struggled with his feelings toward fathers


Copyright 1984 The Times-Picayune. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the Times-Picayune.
April 6, 1984

By JAMES HODGE


In the hours before he was put to death, Elmo Patrick Sonnier struggled with ambivalent feelings toward the fathers of his victims, who asked to watch the electrocution, said Sister Helen Prejean, the spiritual adviser who sat with the condemned man during his final hours.

Godfrey Bourque and Lloyd LeBlanc --the fathers of Loretta Bourque, 18, and David LeBlanc, 16, whom Sonnier was convicted of murdering in 1977-- were granted permission to witness the execution Thursday.

Sonnier, 34, had heard news reports quoting Bourque as saying he'd like to pull the switch himself, said Prejean, a New Orleans nun.

"If they want to pull the switch, OK, let 'em," he told Prejean angrily as he puffed on cigarettes and gulped coffee.

But in the end, she said, he decided "he didn't want his final words to be angry ones."

Sonnier directed his last statement to LeBlanc, saying, "I can understand the way you feel. I have no hatred in my heart. As I leave this world, I ask God to forgive...me for what I did."

He then asked LeBlanc for his forgiveness. LeBlanc nodded, and then Bourque remarked quietly: "He didn't ask me."

Sonnier also said that his brother, Eddie, "did it," Prejean said.

Prosecutors said both Sonnier and his brother abducted the couple from a lovers lane near New Iberia, drove them to a remote sugar cane field, and raped the girl. The teen-agers were shot three times each at close range in the back of the head.

Since their arrests, the Sonnier brothers switched their stories about who did the shootings. But Eddie Sonnier insisted in a letter to Gov. Edwin W. Edwards earlier this week that he was the killer and not Elmo Sonnier. Elmo Sonnier told Prejean that Eddie Sonnier was the trigger man. Eddie Sonnier's sentence was reduced to life in prison because a court believed he did not fire the fatal shots.

Prejean, who talked to Elmo Sonnier through a steel mesh window most of the day Wednesday, said he bore no ill will toward Eddie Sonnier and dictated a letter to her Wednesday afternoon to give to his brother. "He told him to be cool, keep his head and stay out of trouble. He ended it, 'I love you, your big brother.'"

Elmo Sonnier never really believed his appeal would be successful, she said. After he ate a steak dinner, she said the death house phone rang and then a guard came and told Sonnier his appeals had been turned down by the federal courts.

"I know I'm not going to make it," he told Prejean. Minutes later, after Edwards refused to intervene, "there was fear and anguish on his face," she said.

Guards, dressed in black, came in and shaved his head and leg. Later he resigned himself to his fate and started talking about life after death, she said. "He also said no one was going to see him break."

Prejean followed Elmo Sonnier to the execution chamber, her hand on his shoulder, reading from Isaiah Chapter 43: "Fear not, for I have redeemed you...When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned...Lead out the people who are blind though they have eyes, who are deaf though they have ears."

After reading his last statement, he was strapped in "Gruesome Gertie," the inmates' name for the state's oak electric chair.

Elmo Sonnier caught Prejean's eye: "I love you," he said. "I love you, too," she replied.

Then his face was covered with a greenish-gray veil, and the executioner pulled the switch at 12:07 a.m., sending four alternating jolts of 2,000 volts and 500 volts of electricity through his body.

Prejean said she closed her eyes for the minute the volts were administered.

The two fathers sat through the execution, side by side, arms folded and without expression. They had no comment afterward.

"The fathers handled themselves well -- with dignity in what was a very difficult situation. We had no complaints about their conduct," Warden Ross Maggio said.

Sonnier will be buried in Baton Rouge Friday.

Larry Moore, director of Rebenhorst Funeral Home in Baton Rouge, said, "A religious community has taken responsibility for seeing that the man is properly buried."

Prejean said she and other Catholic nuns are involved.

Moore said the funeral home provided the nuns with a casket. The service will be held at the home, with burial at Roselawn Memorial Park.



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